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Budget Fight Looms

Parties Spar Over More Reconciliation

Fresh off their successful use of filibuster-busting reconciliation rules to pass their health-care-cum-student-loan-overhaul, Democrats preparing to write a new budget blueprint have to decide whether to give the controversial practice another go later this year.

Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and other Republicans have said they are less inclined to cooperate with Democrats after the majority’s use of reconciliation for a package of health care reform fixes, so using the tactic may be the only way to claim another major legislative victory before the crucial midterm elections — especially since the special election of Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) in January fully empowered Senate Republicans to employ filibusters.

Senate Democrats — for whom the filibuster-proof process is most advantageous — so far appear to be of two minds on how the latest reconciliation debate ended up for them.

One senior Senate Democratic aide noted, “I don’t feel like Democrats are currently licking their procedural wounds” after the comparatively quick health care reconciliation debate in March. However, the aide added, “Nobody’s ruling it in yet.”

But another senior Senate Democratic aide said the debate was “not a relatively bloodless process. It was very long and very painful.” This aide noted that several tense weeks were spent vetting provisions with their House counterparts and the Senate Parliamentarian in an attempt to write a bill that did not violate reconciliation rules.

That “scrub” of the bill worked to keep the major provisions of the measure intact, and Senate GOP threats of endless amendments and weeks of floor debate never materialized.

However, Senate Republicans were successful in forcing the House to repass the reconciliation measure when they convinced the Parliamentarian that two small provisions violated reconciliation rules. Democrats did not have the 60 votes necessary to waive the points of order the GOP lodged against the provisions.

Senate Budget ranking member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said last week that he believes Republicans scored a lot of points during the reconciliation debate, in which they offered many amendments designed to force difficult votes on Democrats. (The Democratic leadership had already telegraphed their intention to vote every amendment down.)

“We made points that are going to be worth telling,” said Gregg, noting Democrats are on record as voting against amendments designed to eliminate cuts to Medicare, among other things.

“If I were a Democrat, I don’t think I’d want to go through that again,” he said. “It’s going to be very hard to defend those votes.”

Democrats will have to decide soon whether they are going to use reconciliation again this year. If so, they will have to write reconciliation instructions into the new budget they will attempt to adopt later this spring.

Of the possibility that the majority might use reconciliation again, Gregg said, “I almost dare them to do it.” But he said Democrats might be wise to avoid a new budget resolution altogether given such a document would only give Republicans another opening to challenge Democrats’ credibility on fiscal issues.

Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) did not appear too keen on repeating the process when asked during the final hours of his chamber’s health care debate.

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